Film — 04 April 2013

Rick Segreda

Currently there is no movie that embodies Hollywood at its most decadent today as “Oz the Great and Powerful”. It is a veritable orgy of digital special effects from beginning to end that manages to be both confusing and crass. Or as Shakespeare said, “it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

“Oz the Great and Powerful” is based on one of the series of fantasy novels for children written by L. Frank Baum.  The novels were adapted into the  1939 MGM film “The Wizard of Oz” starring Judy Garland. The newest movie “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a prequel to the original movie and is not based on the books.

Other film adaptations, such as “Alice in Wonderland,” the “Narnia Chronicles”, and “The Lord of the Rings”, were based on books that were very popular and whose story was widely known even before the films appeared. So a new version of these film adaptation need not reference any film previous interpretation. But that is not the case with “Oz the Great and Powerful,” since the MGM movie was always more popular and more well-known than the books.  Thus, the new film, directed by Sam Raimi (“The Evil Dead” trilogy, the “Spiderman” trilogy) is limited by its need to both exploit and honor “The Wizard of Oz”.

The major problem with “Oz the Great and Powerful” is that the narrative smells of pure nervous calculation, with a nose to nothing other than maximum potential profit, while offering nothing with regards to inspiration. The story line of “Oz the Great and Powerful” attempts to explain the events that precede the narrative of the 1939 movie.  The plot deals with how the wizard, who was not all-powerful, but merely an illusion of such, became who he was. It also explains the genesis of the different witches, good and bad, who struggle for control over the Land of Oz.

At the beginning of the film the wizard is just an illusionist in a carnival.  He is a failure in his professional life because of his inability to make real, as opposed to artificial, magic for his audiences. He is also a failure in his personal life – his girlfriend announces that she prefers to marry another man. However, any sympathy for the audience might have for the wizard evaporates when it is discovered that the illusionist has been flirting with the carnival strong man’s girlfriend, who proceeds to chase the illusionist out in a vengeful rage.  The wizard escapes by hot-air balloon, which in little time is consumed by a tornado and dropped it to the Land of Oz. Sound familiar?

The Land of Oz, as presented in this film, is a very careful visual reproduction of the “Oz” from the 1939 film. And at the same time, its evil witch looks very much as she did in the original. The wizard of the original is a charlatan and coward who is homely and short. The wizard of the new film is also a charlatan but handsome with a capacity for charm and virtue. The good witch in Oz turns out to be the girlfriend who rejected him in the real world outside the Land of Oz, but the reconciliation is confusing for an audience; it is not clear whether they become a romantic couple or not.

This is a not an unimportant detail. The film attempts to be a prequel to this 1939 “Wizard of Oz”, but the wizard and the good witch are clearly not a couple in that film. So Raimi and company only hint at a possible romance between the two in their movie, without making such explicit. However, if they are not a couple, then why does the wizard elect to remain in Oz when his options for romance (and sex) are non-existent, and why should we care about his failings in love at the beginning of the film? What really, then is the meaning of this whole subplot?


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